Yesterday I finished reading The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage. This is the true story of an automaton built in Austria in 1769 that could play chess against a human and almost always win. The machine consisted of a wooden cabinet filled with gears and mechanical bits with doors that opened and closed, and the upper part of a mechanical man dressed up with a turban and robes. The mechanical man could pick up pieces and put them down, would move your piece back if you made an illegal move, and could say Check (in French) at the appropriate point in the game. It played games against such notorious folk as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon (Napoleon's son actually owned it for awhile). Dozens of people published pamphlets and articles guessing how the machine might work, including Edgar Allan Poe (whose article poses a solution to how the Turk works, including some adorable diagrams and 17 points of evidence). It had brief periods of sitting in storage, but pretty much captivated people for 80 years straight until it ended up in a museum that burned down, taking the Turk with it in 1854. The secret of its operation was not revealed until three years later.
What is extra strange is that the day after I finished the book, I see a blurb for the movie "Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine," which is playing at the Drafthouse downtown. The whole last chapter of The Turk is devoted to the series of games played by Kasparov, the soviet chess champion, against IBM's Deep Blue computer. The last chapter of the book is all about this very match, including Kasparov's insistence that IBM cheated and a human was behind Deep Blue's chess playing.
The book ties together all these seemingly unconnected bits of history, and raises some really interesting questions about artificial intelligence and human nature. Plus its kind of about robots. It gets seven Kristy thumbs up.
[This article explains the whole story of the Turk, with lovely illustrations, including a working replica of the automaton built in the 80s (with a dude dressed up like the inventor in the most awesome green 17th century reproduction jacket I've ever seen). Its kind of fun to read the book without knowing how the guy actually works, but I think it would still be enjoyable after looking at this page, which kind of reveals the secret, but doesn't really explain it.]